Or ‘what happened after’.
Writers are very much divided on ‘what happened after’ and just how important it is to have or leave out. It is, after all, by its basic nature, somewhat anticlimactic. Is it better to leave that to the reader’s imagination? Or does the reader want the satisfaction of seeing all the final results? Or is it more a case of that depends entirely on the reader?
It’s a good question, and one which I don’t really have a clear insight into an answer for. I must admit to lingering over the cleansing of the Shire – every time I read it. And I know precisely what is going to happen. I don’t WANT to leave the book. Sam’s final piece stirs a part of my soul. That… loyalty aside, is what he went, somewhat unknowing, to preserve, to return to. So he could return to it, to Rose. There are other books… well, denouement over, I’d as happily stop reading.
I’d be interested in your thoughts: when does a book need as it were an ‘afterword’? How long should it be? What impact does it have on your desire for a sequel?
Anyway, Barbs just got home after 3 weeks of visiting our first grandchild. I could not go, because I had to fight the petty bureaucrat war (yes, they have been that petty). I am grateful for modern communication, but it really is not quite the same.
We’ll be up at 5.15 tomorrow for the Anzac day dawn service, to pay our respects to those served and those who did not come back. Those who will not grow old as we that are left grow old; and in the morning we shall remember them.
And I am glad to say ‘Well, she’s back.’
I love it when a book allows us to feel the afterglow. If the penultimate scene is the climax, and the final scene is the anticlimax, there’s a reason you get both. The one is the gigantic pay-off, but the other is everyone’s reaction to it and the consequences. Sure, it can be more quiet than the climax, but if that was good and dramatic enough, we’re not supposed to need more.
As Swain points out in his Techniques book, we like both the action and the reaction. As in: “He did what?” Then, after you hear all the gritty detail of that, your next question is, “How did she feel about all that?” We want both.
As long as the anticlimax has something to do with the consequences or reactions to the denouement, then it’s a delicious wrapping up.
The cleansing of the shire is awesome.
There are those who think that “The Scouring of the Shire” is an unimportant afterthought, and those who think it was the most important part of the book.
I can forgive the movies leaving out Tom Bombadil (much as I like the old fellow), and transferring much of the old forest scene to the Entwood (at least in the extended version).
But it is even harder to forgive leaving out the Scouring of the Shire than it is the treatment of Faramir. Why didn’t they at least put it in the extended version?
It depends on the story.
The scouring of the shire brings important resolution for Sam.
But the epilogue in Elizabeth Moon’s “Speed of Dark”…
The story ends with the main character having reached his resolution and is taking a last walk in the park knowing that he’s either going die, or be changed on a fundamental level. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet scene. Then we get an extended epilogue to tell us the character we no longer recognize survived, and is happy. It retrospectively robs much of the poignancy from the story, and over a decade after I’ve read it, I still actively hate it.
In the period when I read Regency/Georgian romances a lot (keep in mind, we’re talking about a timeframe 20-25 years ago) there were a lot of Babies Ever After epilogues, sometimes with the hero or heroine of the next book in series visiting the leads.
And there are still the “endless sisters yet to be wed” sorts of books being churned out. I find that structure… uncompelling. Who cares about a story that just does a bit of fan-satisfaction glimpses of the characters you liked to stuff a story with a different character set?
Nora Roberts has pulled that off, occasionally, but it requires that the characters of the entire series (the central ones, e.g., the sisters or brothers) are on stage for the entire show with some real presence. That sort of ensemble writing is not in everyone’s toolkit.
I will say that I hate, hate, hate the books that end with a climactic battle. Note that the traditional story structure is “Introduction, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, conclusion” not “climax, action falls off a cliff.” I read too many fantasy novels as a kid where the dragon is killed within a paragraph of the end, and I was left thinking, “Wait, WHAT?” Novels need, if nothing else, a chapter or so of resolution to ease everyone back into the new status quo.
As to exactly what should be in that conclusion, I think this ties in with Luke’s point above: just what is the point of the book? If you’ll forgive me for using my own work as an example, in the novel I have coming out in June, the heroine and her team have a huge battle with the bad guy team in Chapter 22. It’s clearly the climax, the confrontation we’ve been building to–but winning the battle wasn’t really the good guy’s goal. The goal was to insure that a political wedding between two fairy courts went off without disaster and kept peace in the Fae Realm. So the book needs a Chapter 23, where the wedding actually happens.
But even the wedding wasn’t really the point of the book. The point was that the heroine had recently acquired new powers and a more expansive role in the magical world and needed to figure out how to control the magic and deal with the new expectations; the wedding was just my way of making her explore those. So the book needs a Chapter 24 to bring it to its true conclusion: what has she learned, how can she incorporate those lessons going forward, and what is she going to do in order to keep improving so she can handle future challenges.
The scouring of the Shire is something that is foreshadowed in ‘The Mirror of Galadriel’, all the way back in Part 1, Book 2. Sam is shown in the mirror what might happen in the Shire, and is warned that events shown may or may not come true – and indeed some things shown in the mirror only come true if the viewer turns aside from his path to prevent them. In practice the vindictiveness of Saruman, coupled with his defeat at the hands of the ents, makes it inevitable. So with hindsight, having read to the end, not including the scouring of the Shire in the story is not realistic in the context of the tale.
It also provides a useful way to show the reader how the hobbits have grown over the course of the story. Merry and Pippin have grown into leaders of hobbits with an understanding of warfare – as seen in their victory in the Battle of Bywater. Sam has grown into a gardener with a great love for the entire Shire, and is now the natural successor as Mayor. Frodo has grown into a truly wise and compassionate character who is even willing to show Saruman mercy in the hope that he will find healing for his soul somewhere.
So in the context of the Lord of the Rings, the extended afterword is essential to bring the tale to its proper resolution.
Other works have a much shorter afterword. E.g. The Horse and His Boy has a relatively short afterword, as does at least one other Chronicle of Narnia.
Tentative advice on the need for an afterword: If there are consequences to the characters of events earlier in the story, and there are no plans for a sequel to explore these, then an afterword to work through those consequences should be considered, even if it is only “and they all lived happily ever after”. If there will be a sequel then many of those consequences will be explored there, but even then some consequences may require an afterword. But if the story works better without an afterword than with one, then an afterword may not be a good idea.
Another couple things the Scouring does: 1) It drives home HARD how far reaching the consequences of Sauron’s actions were. Even the Shire, which had escaped for so long, could not escape entirely. 2) While it provides a conclusion for the hobbits… it also is the conclusion for Middle Earth, more than anything else that drives home that the old age is over.
Both of my earlier 4-book series are complete (there is an overall arc), and each novel is it’s own completed story with its own threats and resolutions. But… in each case, by the end the hero has formed some form of a beginning family with apparent tasks on the horizon and there’s no absolute reason that there can’t be more events to extend the series. Someday I may do that. For the first series, I put together a few short stories for scenes that had no place in the individual books (including the wedding of the hero that takes place inbetween books), because I didn’t want to leave those out, but I wasn’t skilled enough to design for them organically within the individual books. (At least I didn’t make the mistake of trying to shoehorn them in anyway, or just force the books to continue with repetitive ad hoc adventures.)
The real reason I didn’t tack on an extension (so far) is that I built those series to get the experience and the tool kit to build an indefinite length series story that I’ve had in mind for quite a while, which I wasn’t equipped to handle yet. It’s amazing how much craft there is to learn — a lifelong endeavor. I used to find that frustrating, but now I just look forward to the endless learning process. A million words goes a long way toward building craft-comfort. That, and the acceptance that I don’t have to learn how to do things I don’t care about anyway (like producing serials with cliff-hanger endings). You don’t need every tool/skill that exists to tell your stories — just the toolkit that gets it done for you. Experimentation is not an end unto itself.
It really depends on the story. I’ve seen and used both and seen cases where one was needed and the other was done.
Usually I find the epilogue is needed if there are loose plot threads that need to be resolved that are not part of the central arc. The Cleansing of the Shire was needed because it closes the loop on the hobbits and their lives now that all of this is done.
However if all it does is reset the story, it’s not worth it. War and Peace has an epilogue where you find out all of the main characters have basically forgotten everything they learned over the course of the books and are fixing to do it all over again in the next generation.
In the shorts I’ve written so far, about 2/3 have an epilogue thing in them, and the reasons ranged from there were things the characters would have to deal with after the main plot thread, there was action after the main decision that had no dramatic action in it, and several where there was an over-plot that meant the reader needed to see the actions of characters who were not involved in the main story.
That said, now that I’m looking at them, I could see how ones I didn’t think have an epilogue could be seen as having them. So it’s probably a matter of gradiation?
D. E. Stevenson has a number of books that stop as soon as the main characters have chosen their forward direction. It feels quite abrupt. I have wondered if she does it because the working out of some problems would take a whole new book and she isn’t really into sequels. So figure it out yourself.
I really liked the ending of _Joy Comes with the Mourning_ and the way it wraps up a few last little bits but doesn’t smack you over the head. I liked the Scouring of the Shire and definitely think the story arc would suffer without it.
I guess I think it really depends on the book and what the author is trying to do. But I fundamentally like a bit of wrap-up.
Mysteries need an epilogue, I think. To show the community/main characters recovering after the denouement, and (IMHO) to show the long term effects of the crime that was committed. How are the survivors coping? Are neighbors now not speaking to each other because of the facts disclosed? And maybe to provide a lead-in to the next book in the series.
Bilbo decided on the ending of his book while it was still being written:
“And he lived happily ever after, to the end of his days.”
I read for escapism. I DON’T like books that end with misery; I don’t like books that end with major issues unresolved. I didn’t like Doyle’s “The Final Problem,” and fortunately, no one else did either. I’m okay with twists, in which you discover that the innocent _______ was really _________ all along, but NOT if it means that they are going to go east some more babies.
Despite being a massive fanboy, I thought the ending of ‘Footfall’ was awful; they put their feet on his chest, and that’s it?
I also hate that reality gets introduced. Yes, in REALITY, after a climactic event, there are MASSIVE adjustments that have to be made. I just don’t want to know about it. Thanos turns into dust after Iron Man snaps his fingers, the end. Yes, Tony dies, and I’m okay with THAT. I’m just not nuts about the movies about the characters having to live through the consequences of the inevitable world-wide economic depression afterwards, as in ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,’ among others.
Maybe that’s the cost of getting more stories.
On the other hand: “The Best Years of Our Lives” might have saved some lives.
Gimme another Fanta Green Apple.
When I read LotR, I read two of the three volumes back to back (trans oceanic flight. Loooooooong flight). I wanted to hurl the books into the ocean when I finished the Scouring of the Shire, because I *wanted* a happily ever after. I did NOT want reality intruding into my fantasy. I read history for that – military history almost exclusively at that point.
Now [many] years later I understand why the Scouring needed to be there. I try to have a little wrap-up at the end of everything, be it a paragraph or two, or a chapter. There need to be consequences, good and bad, and a nod to the future, perhaps an answer or two to questions the protagonist has not asked aloud.
I prefer an afterword that describes the new state of affairs. This can resolve lingering questions or set up the next book(s), but a closing farewell to the characters and environment we’ve just enjoyed is nice.
“The Dragon is dead, the end” isn’t my favorite way to have a bok end. I rather prefer “the hero’s welcome” and a description of life after the dragon. Doesn’t have to be great, but I dislike putting a book down wondering if the hero even made it home from the fight with the dragon, or got mugged on the road.
I thought you did an excellent job with the afterword/closing chapters of Cloud Castles. The story closed satisfactorily without leaving screaming loose threads, but with space for sequels if you wanted.
It depends on the book.
That said, The Scouring of the Shire demonstrated that everything matters and ties together. If Frodo & company hadn’t accepted the challenge, the Shire would have been destroyed. That’s what they were fighting for. Home. The place they loved. Where family and friends lived. The Shire matters or nothing matters.
By the time you read this you will have honored your dead. Please allow me to pay my belated respects.
Someone a while back (I believe it may have been in the mad genius club) used the analogy that writing is like sex. It’s the writer “entertaining” the reader.
I’m going to continue that analogy because it serves my purpose in answering this question.
Some books are a one-night stand, or “casual sex.” At most F^&k-buddies.
There’s no emotional commitment, no long-term relationship, just fun sweaty exercise. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, sometimes that may be what you’re looking for. Those books don’t need much “afterglow.” A little pet and tickle, catch your breath, clean up and have a beer, or leave the money on the dresser if you will…
Many mysteries and police procedurals are like that. The bad guy goes to jail or receives a bullet to the brain, maybe the cop/PI/elven ranger gets a promotion/payday/medal from the king, fade to black.
Epic stories, on the other hand, things that take months or years to unfold, things that allowed the reader to live with the writer for long periods of subjective time, or through massive changes in the character’s lives… Those are great love affairs. Even if they don’t end with “happily ever after” or “and they died within hours of each other at the age of 98″… Even if the love affair ends in court, or with poison or other betrayals…
That needs a more prolonged wrap-up. You’ve invested your reader in the life of these characters, and like the aftermath of a great love affair, you want to know how they went on… Take one of the classic Hollywood pieces: Richard Burton and Liz Taylor. If you’re telling the story of that particular train wreck, you can’t end it with “And he went his way, and she went hers.”
I mean you can, but you’re a dick if you do, and your book is going to get walled, and a lot of people will swear off reading you.
To go back to our sexual analogy, it’s like waking up next to your wife of ten years or more, doing a “wham bam thank you ma’am” and getting up to go play a round of golf. You can do that but expect to hear about it at great length, and dinner is going to be a mother-in-law sandwich. Cold shoulder and tongue.
The Scouring is the lesson that most seem to miss in the LotR. Evil is evil, great or small. The mighty wizard Saruman the White, reduced to bullying Hobbits.
Consider that Saruman was one of the Maiar just like Gandalf. A divine being, not a mortal. He is a symbol of Power and Privilege, corrupted and fallen to nothing by evil and most of all, pride. One would think such a being wouldn’t bother with the Shire, such small potatoes after all. But being evil, he did.
After destroying the One Ring, the hobbits come home and they STILL have to deal with scumbag Saruman. Because he’s an asshole. He won’t ever stop. He must -be- stopped. Just like Sauron, but small and mean.
Some days I look at the news and think I’m seeing the Scouring right now. We survived the Cold War, we defeated the Evil Empire. But people who used to be part of us have become a smaller, more wretched form of the Great Evil, working by petty vandalism and perversion of our own nation.
On the bright side, all they have is lies and bluster. That’s not much compared to Hobbit determination.
Some of my short stories end very abruptly. Over the Sea, To Me for instance. Then it’s a fairy tale retelling. . . .
But most have at least codas. Only once I have I split off stories into sequels to curb the afterword
I note that the closing action needs to be proportionate to the length of the story. You can get away with a chapter or even two in a novel. Short story? At most a scene.